Forget Online Dating: Here's Something That Might Really Hurt Monogamy

Let's say you met an over-educated, underemployed, thirty-something man who seemed incapable of holding down a relationship, and who was known to date up to half-a-dozen women at a time after meeting them online. If you had to come up with a single theory to explain his desultory love life, what would it be? 

Dan Slater thinks you should blame the Internet. His article in this month's Atlantic, "A Million First Dates," argues that online matchmaking services like OKCupid and eHarmony are so powerful that they are bound to infect us all with a collective case of romantic ADHD -- or, as he puts it, that "the rise of online dating will mean an overall decrease in commitment." The impulse to search for "an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse" will prove so intoxicating over the long term, he writes, that it could undermine the very notions of marriage and monogamy. 

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Of course, online dating has been around for a while now. But Slater doesn't offer up much hard evidence that monogamy is actually becoming passe in this country, other than to point out that divorce rates have increased -- an oversimplification of what's happened in the past few decades. Rather, he introduces us to Jacob, the pseudonymous thirty-something schlub I alluded to above. Jacob is a dedicated Green Bay Packer's fan who is less than enthusiastic about the idea of a 40-hour workweek. He is also convinced that the constant temptations of online dating have kept him from settling down. And other than quotes from the executives of a few assorted matchmaking sites, whose insights boil down to admissions that their products aren't designed to foster long-term relationships, his story makes up the bulk of the piece. 

The things is, there are much, much bigger social forces at work in this country that could explain Jacob's love life than the irresistible charms of a well-curated Match.com profile.  

Take, for instance, the enormous shortage of college educated men in Portland, Jacob's hometown. Across the United States today, young women are much more likely to graduate from college than their male peers, a trend that's been compounding itself for a few decades now. And because college graduates overwhelmingly tend to date other college graduates, that's created an enormous imbalance in the national dating pool. In Portland, the situation is particularly dire. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, there are 33 percent more women in Portland who are under the age of 35 and have at least a bachelor's degree in than there are men. That's on par with New York, which is notorious for its lopsided gender ratio.  

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Even if you look at Portland's wider metro region, which offers up a larger singles population, the ratio is still fairly skewed,* especially compared to cities such as Austin, San Francisco, or nearby Seattle.  

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But could the mere fact that Portland has thousands upon thousands of surplus, college educated women be enough to keep men like Jacob from settling down? It's not meant to be a silly question--after all, much of this probably just comes down to personality. But in fact, social scientists have been researching the society-wide effect of sex ratios on marriages and relationships since the early 20th century, and some of the evidence suggests that when there are excess women around, young men are less likely to commit.  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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